All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Weapon Preferences and Specializations versus Signatures

Would it be feasible to have a character that’s bad at fighting with a sword and doing hand-to-hand combat, but is skilled with using a bow and arrows? I’m asking because I’m not sure if being a good archer has any crossover with fighting with your fists, for example, in terms of skills needed. Or would this character be good at all three of them if she just practiced? Is it realistic that she could just have an affinity towards using the bow?

The concept of the signature weapons rather than comprehensive fighting styles is a fictional creation, usually you see them in anime and in video games. To use a bow doesn’t mean you can’t fight with a sword or an axe or with their fists, and, due to the changing nature of the battlefield or the situations they might find themselves in, it would be inadvisable for them to ignore close quarters combat. Even if you’re character was simply a hunter, they’d have a wide ranging skillset with various weapons, including the creation and setting of traps to knives and, possibly, even spears depending on the type of game they hunted. You don’t go after bears and boars with a bow.

One thing to understand about the medieval bow if you plan to have a character use one is that the weapon itself requires a lot of time to set up. A bow is not like a gun, you don’t just pull it out and start shooting. You’ve got to keep it oiled and carefully wrapped so its not exposed to the elements, you carry the bowstring separately so if you’re traveling and didn’t plan to use your bow then it must be restrung. You will also need to either go get your arrows after use, find a fletcher, or make them yourself if you’re not part of a military unit which will provide them to you (and even then, you still want to retrieve them.) The general use for the bow in your standard military was as artillery. They were the cannons before there were cannons. Archers also carried a sidearm in either a sword or axe in cases where the enemy broke through the front lines. At those times, they’d be required to fight in close quarters.

As a writer its important to learn the distinction between “preferred” and “can’t”. This character may prefer to fight with a bow, as a sharpshooter and at range, but combat specialists develop a wide array of skills so they can change out as needed. This includes fighting in hand to hand, fighting with swords (these two crossover), axes, spears, and other weapons.

If you choose to go with a character who only uses a bow and nothing else, then you have a character limited by their positioning who can’t fight in crowded rooms without finding higher ground (and can’t fight past enemies to get to higher ground), who can’t survive an ambush, who has to run and keep running until they put enough distance between themselves and their enemies, who will have difficulty fighting indoors or in places with poor visibility, who may face difficulty fighting at night, who is limited to a specific set of circumstances and does poorly in every single other one. This is a character without any self-defense skills, who is reliant on others to keep them safe when things don’t go according to plan or when they run out of arrows. They also lack the means to create advantageous circumstances for themselves while under threat, which limits their long term survivability.

Every character is going to have preferences for weapons they like to use, and things they don’t like to do. It’s like being told to eat your veggies when you just want to eat fruit, or that you have to do push ups when all you want to do is parkour. Some people prefer fists to kicks, some people prefer standing grappling or joint locks to groundfighting, but you have to learn them all in order to prepare yourself for a variety of situations. If you play shooters, you’ll notice the soldier characters carry a variety of different weapons from assault rifles to SMGs to handguns. That’s not counting the countless other weapons you can choose based on the situation you’re about to walk into. This is so they’ll always have a usable weapon when the situation, scenario, or battlefield changes. You don’t want to lose crucial seconds using a weapon poorly suited for the environment you’re in when a fraction of a second can cost you your life.

Remember, in the combined legends of Robin Hood, his standard kit includes not just a bow but also a sword. We have the legends of his fight on the log with Little John with staves. He might not be better than Little John at using a staff, but he’s trained to fight with one.

Martial combat and weapons work are skills. You learn to use them. Usually, when we’re discussing talent, we’re discussing people who have better than average coordination and great physical mimicry. There’s almost no gap between seeing a technique and applying it. That’s the talent. Your character’s affinity may not just be natural, but learned if she had parents who worked with bows and she grew up around archers. The bow would always feel more natural because she started learning to use one when she was five instead of fifteen.

It’s also important to remember that preference doesn’t always relate to talent. Your character might find learning to use a bow comes more easily to her or she has an “affinity” for it, but likes swords better. At the end of the day, the weapon you like better is the one your better at using because you invest more time into it. A character who uses a bow, might take their hand to hand training and get decent at using their legs for self-defense so they can defend their weapon as well as themselves.

Many writers use talent as an excuse to avoid explanation. Regardless of whatever you plan to write, you should learn as much about the subject as you can. There’s also this idea that you can only train in one thing and that there’s no crossover or blending. Learning to fight hand to hand or with a sword and learning to shoot a bow is no different than learning to shoot and learning to ride a horse. They are two separate skillsets which can be combined, so you can shoot a bow while riding a horse. Otherwise known as mounted combat.

At the end of the day, being a martial combatant is about having a diverse skillset encompassing a very large swath of possibilities in order to prepare for a variety of situations and eventualities. Fighting inside a castle is very different from fighting inside your local village full of houses with thatch roofs. Fighting in a forest is different from fighting on a plain. Fighting an opponent with a spear or staff is fighting a swordsman, or someone with a dagger. Fighting an opponent with a sword and shield is different from fighting someone with a single sword.

Combat is a form of problem solving. There’s never just one way to solve a problem, and you’ll never solve different problems the same way every time. If you choose to do so, your enemy will constantly be developing new ways to stop you and your solution will eventually be countered by new techniques and new technologies. The goalposts are constantly moving, even for characters who are the literal best at what they do.

Don’t hem your characters in, even if they prefer one weapon over others. Let them specialize, but don’t create a one trick pony. This gives you more options to when it comes to constructing scenarios and fight scenes for your characters. You’ll be able to plot a course of action reflective of both your narrative and your characters.

-Michi

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Q&A: Knockouts Are Brain Damage

in a lot of film & tv characters get punched so hard that they are knocked out. i was wondering how strong would the person have to be/how hard would the punch have to be to knock the person out? and how long could the person be knocked it for (realistically)? thanks so much!

We answered a question similar to this one in the article, The Force of a Knockout.

The short answer is that yes, you can knock someone out with a punch. However, it’s not the get out of jail free card that media often presents it as. When you knock someone out, you are inflicting enough damage to their brain that the brain shuts down to protect itself. A knockout is you essentially putting someone into a short term coma, and the injury is a very serious one. Normally, they’ll only be unconscious for a few seconds and anywhere longer than thirty to ninety can indicate serious injury.

You can watch about twenty minutes of The Best Boxing Knockouts of 2018, if you watch closely (it’s blink and you’ll miss it) you will see the eyes roll back in their heads as they pass out on the slow-mo. Even if they’re awake again when that knee hits the mat, the referee jumps in. If you think, “well, what about girls?” then here you go. (Warning for blood.)

That said, strength in not in the equation. The knockouts you’re thinking of are caused by precision punches to pressure points. Usually, this is a hook punch to the jaw. You can’t hit just anywhere on the jaw either. It has to be on the back, near the ear, at the point where the jaw connects to your skull. There’s a pressure point (your nerves) in the gap, which if you hit it with meticulous perfection, can cause someone to pass out. The other version is they hit them enough times in the face that the brain succumbs after being softened up by enough continuous hits.

Anyone of any size can do this, the restriction is either skill based or an incredibly lucky shot. There’s no strength restriction. The hook is not the only means of getting someone to pass out, but it is the one most people are familiar with. You can sit there and pound on the back of someone’s skull (where the bones are softest) until they pass out. There are nerve pressure points elsewhere on the body which if struck will cause the victim to pass out. You can cut off blood flow to the brain through the carotid artery with a blood choke, and they will pass out (and die if it goes on too long.) You can strike someone in the temple (where there is a gap in your skull) for direct access to their brain. You can asphyxiate someone with a standard choke, they will pass out and, if you deny their brain oxygen long enough, eventually die. You can drive someone’s face into a rising knee hard enough that they can, under some circumstances, pass out. You can bash their head into a hard surface like a concrete wall, a sink, a metal door, a wooden door, until they (again) pass out or just can’t get back up. You can also kick them in the head to deliver even more force, resulting in more damage. Upgrade this to a spin kick or a jump kick, or even a spinning jump kick if you’re feeling adventurous. In terms of force, kicks outperform punches.

Here, watch some kickboxing knockouts while we’re at it.

Again, a knockout is brain damage. You have convinced your victim’s brain that the injury inflicted to it is so serious that it must temporarily shut down in self-defense to preserve their life. If they’re down for longer than thirty seconds, their chances of long term to permanent brain injury increase substantially. And there’s always a chance something else will do them more harm in the intermediary, from the fall itself (which can kill them or cause another greater injury which kills them) to what happens after you walk away.

Fiction likes to present the knockout as the Saturday Morning Cartoon death. You can essentially kill a character without having to say you killed them while ignoring the subsequent guilt and/or consequences of murder. This is why I refer to knockouts as fiction’s “get out of jail free card”, and why you should consider the knockout carefully before you choose to apply it. A lot of fiction writers have a bad habit of thinking anything up to death is okay or preserves a character’s moral good. However, violence is everything you do to a person from short term damage to the long term injuries. There are lots of unintended consequences, which are seeds of interesting stories all on their own.

You should never trick yourself into thinking violence in any form is safe, there’s always a risk assessment and built in cost. Your brain is floating in fluid, every time you take a hit in the face you’ll be damaging it. That’s not counting the swelling, the broken noses, someone taking out your eyes with their fingers, lost teeth from the force of a hit, boxed ears disorienting you, stumbling from taking a hit to the back of your skull, losing hair or even skin when your scalp gets raked/your hair pulled, blood leaking into your eye when your eyebrow gets split or cut by your opponent’s knuckles.

Remember this adage: where the head goes, the body follows.

Protecting your head and face is your number one priority. If someone gets control of your head, they can take you anywhere they want. No matter how hard you struggle, you will go with them until you manage to break their grip. If you ever had a question about why hair pulling is a legitimate tactic, it’s because you take control of their head and you have direct access to all the nerves around your hair follicles. You can control where they go, and it hurts. Why punch someone in the nose? A) it hurts, B) it’s a soft target so you don’t risk hurting your hand on the skull’s bone plates, and C) the swelling will disrupt their ability to see which hinders their ability to continue the fight.

You’ll notice too with most professional fighters in sports that allow ground combat like the UFC, the fighters will follow their opponent to the ground and/or keep hitting them as they go down. They get pulled off by the referees. In the rush of adrenaline and focus, it can take time for someone to realize that they need to stop. You can guarantee your character will likely have gotten in consecutive hits after their opponent has fallen, doing more damage to them than is necessary because they don’t realize they’re unconscious.

The average street fight only lasts for twenty five seconds, but rarely ends in a knockout. You’re much more likely to end up putting your opponent in a position they can no longer fight than you are driving them into an unconscious state. The exception is if you intended to. You’re less likely to knock someone out with luck than you are with skill, but either way its never guaranteed because everyone’s body is different.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing Training

What kind of things do you need to emphasize in a training scene? One of my characters, a fairly prodigious fighter, is trying to teach a craftsman’s apprentice the basics of fighting, and I want to show the learning. Your post earlier talked about the buildup & payoff to a fight scene, but how does it work with scenes that happen fairly early and don’t carry the same kind of weight/stakes?

There should always weight and stakes to any fight scene, any scene in your novel from big to small. You should always be on the lookout to figure out how to build into your small scenes because that will lead you into a bigger whole.

Let me ask you a question: What will happen if the craftsman’s apprentice never learns to fight? What happens if he or she fails? How does this potential failure impact their future? How does the prospect impact them personally?

Learning to fight is difficult. No matter how good your teacher, the onus for success is on the student. The student who doesn’t want to be there won’t be for very long, and the student who does may give up rather than persevere. The building of endurance, the slow pace, the physical requirements, the necessity of patience, focus on simple techniques broken down and studied piece by piece. Going to bed tired and aching every day if the training lasts for prolonged periods of time. The student learns quickly that all the glory they imagined is replaced by hard work. Most of them give up.

If you haven’t contemplated the possibility of this apprentice failing, you should. You should contemplate how this character behaves when they start to struggle, when they get bored, when they feel like they want to quit.

If they fail, does it matter?

Those are your stakes.

As for what you should emphasize, the sports movie training montage and training sequences are some of the best templates to choose from. Alternately, the martial arts movie training sequence and training montage or the military bootcamp training sequence and training montage. Once you’ve watched enough of these, they become pretty easy to conform into writing.

The basic template for traditional martial arts is:

  1. Student is excited to learn training.
  2. Training is not what they expected, training is repetitive singular motions which may not connect to what they thought they’d be learning (wax on, wax off, or hang up the jacket) and endurance exercises that wear them out. They go home every day tired and aching, don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. Student gets frustrated and complains to teacher. Teacher tells them to practice more.
  4. Student practices more, gets more frustrated. Threatens to quit. Because student is close to the hump, Teacher relents and shows them how the motions they’ve been practicing connect into a single technique. They realize they have been learning to fight.
  5. Student goes back to training, but more excitedly than they did before. Master gradually opens up to them.
  6. Several weeks/months later, student shows off their basic technical mastery. Leaves their master ready to face the world, the big tournament, or whatever it was they were training for.
  7. Encounters the real world, discovers that their training has prepared them well but will be much more difficult than previously expected.

This will be difficult for you is if the trainee is not the main character of this story, but a stop over point for the character who will be training them. Training another person to fight is a long and involved process if you want to do it well, and requires anywhere between months to years of commitment from both student and master.

If you don’t know anything about the technical details of fighting or the specific style your character practices, then you’ll find writing a training sequence to be extremely difficult. You can’t write what you don’t know. You’ve got to sit down and learn what you didn’t know before. Part of the reason I recommend watching a film over reading a novel is you’ll be able to see the physical intricacies of training which often get glossed over (outside some authors wanting to portray a romantic connection.) Training someone else to fight involves a lot of physical contact on the part of the instructor, this is usually in adjustments. They mimic what you show them, then you correct their positioning into the correct one so their body can feel the difference. They remember that sensation, and practice the motion until they can achieve that same feeling.

You’ve often got to move their feet into the proper position for their stances, remind them to bend their knees so they go lower, move their shoulders back or sideways so they’re on the proper angle, lift their elbows or shift the position of their arm while their hold position, tighten up their stomach/abdominal muscles, fix their breathing (breathe through your diaphragm and not your stomach. You want as little air in your stomach as possible.) Etc.

There’s no one size fits all training, you have to adjust your approach per student based on their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll rarely have the perfect student. They may have a strong grasp of their physicality, but a weak drive or poor endurance. Where some students grasp the basics faster than others, the slower ones with good endurance and drive can outpace the more talented students at higher levels because their grasp of the basics ended up stronger. Students who are rushed to the more advanced or difficult techniques (the way they usually want) are usually weaker than students forced to master the basics before given opportunity to advance. The reason for this is because the basic techniques form your foundation for both attack and defense, they’re also the most commonly used techniques.

The biggest component of training is endurance based. The assumption is that this is “strength” as in what you can lift, but it is not. Re-focus on long distance running and short sprints which build up lung capacity, climbing exercises which emphasize agility and dexterity, push ups, sit ups, and others which build your core muscles for better balance. You’ll see a focus on fine motor control, lengthening (endurance exercises) rather than tearing (weight lifting) the muscles. Unless you plan on having them wear armor or draw a bow, they’re going to develop the type of body similar to a long distance runner. They’ll train on a multitude of surfaces if their teacher has the option, indoors, in the flats of forest, in the mountains, on the beach, so they learn to adjust their body and their fighting style to effectively fight/conserve energy on different terrains.

If you’ve never tried to run on the beach, you’ll learn quickly you want to be running near the waves and were the sand is wet rather than on loose sand. The surface is harder and more stable where its wet, dry sand will sap your energy.

A good teacher will try to expose their student to most situations which can be done in relative safety. One of the advantages of training is the preparation and that preparation leads to quicker responses than from someone experiencing the situation for the first time. However, you cannot prepare your student for everything and some experiences can only be learned by experiencing them outside the safety of the training floor. As a writer, you’ll be making the executive decisions for your trainer about what is and isn’t too dangerous. This is where most of the suspension of disbelief breaks occur in these sequences because the trainer ends up requiring their student to do something far above and beyond what they could conceivably be asked in a real world scenario.

Two humans fight with real blades rather than training blades without any safety measures is one example. The scene may seem sexy, but contextually the decision is stupid.

Always treat your characters in your head like they’re real people. Your trainer is making decisions based on what is safe for your character to learn. Any serious injury the trainee suffers could lead to months of recovery time or them never fighting. You want to push them just hard enough that you take them beyond the limits they’ve set for themselves, but not past what they can actually accomplish.

Always ask yourself: what are they learning?

Training exercises generally have multiple lessons attached beyond the technique itself. Remember, training isn’t just training the character’s body but also their mind and their character. Their values are reshaped, their beliefs shift and mature, and they develop as a character. Training is character development. Consider who this character is at the beginning of their training and who they are by the end of it, if you don’t envision them changing you should ask yourself why.

Most writers are tempted to do what the student wants or sympathize with the student in their training sequences, this is either because the student is their main character and they empathize more with them or because they’re beginners themselves. Or, it could be both.

You’ll handicap your character and your narrative if you give them what they want, but most of your audience won’t notice. Only a very small contingent will respond with, “lol, no.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your best to do it right, I’m just saying don’t worry too much about blow back. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The vast majority of people can’t tell its not bacon.

Again, don’t trap yourself into thinking you need world altering stakes in order for your character’s story to matter. The stakes of any narrative are what you make them and they are driven by the participating characters’ desires, wants, dreams versus their situation and what they are asked to sacrifice or do in order to attain those desires. Leave yourself open to possibilities and uncertainty, contemplate failure even if you know long term the characters are going to succeed. Failure is not always malicious or malevolent, sometimes its unintentional. It can be easy as saying “I don’t want to do this anymore” and deciding a few days later that you really do, only to discover the opportunity has passed.

There is always an alternate world or worlds filled with the choices we did or didn’t make, and there are stories in all of those potential choices. Learning to make the most of those potential stories is part of what writing is all about.

-Michi

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Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Never to Late to Start

I want to learn a martial art but I am 25. I feel like I’m too old to train my body for something new. I even tried to take figure skating classes a year ago and it was embarrassing and frustrating. Everyone who great at something seemed to learn when they were kids. I read books all day and do well with learning new intellectual things but struggle with learning new physical skills.

Twenty-five is not too young. I’ve seen people get their black belts in their eighties, I’ve seen cancer survivors get their black belts, one of my major training partners for my third degree black belt was a woman in her mid forties who’d survived a stroke and the other was a man in his late forties/early fifties. Dave went on to get his fourth degree, and is still a part-time instructor at our martial arts school to this day. He got into martial arts because of his kids, and stayed long after they quit because he loved it.

Believe it or not, most martial arts masters and instructors at most schools actually started in their late teens/early twenties. You get the rare ones who start when they’re five or twelve, but most of the ones who start as kids eventually quit. They lose interest, and go on to do something else.

You’re not going to get past the embarrassing and frustrating part if you’re embarrassed by struggling, nothing regarding physical activity is going to click quickly. Training your body to do something new takes time. Realistically, in a recreational martial arts school where you train three days a week for forty-five minutes to an hour a day, the techniques will start to click about three months after you start. That’s if you’re consistent with showing up to training, and if you try hard. At two years, the techniques are going to feel good and you’ll be limber enough/coordinated enough to start doing them well. Four years to six years in is when you usually test for your first black belt, so that’s when you actually start getting good.

However, it’s only embarrassing and frustrating if you let it be.

There’s a real reason why willpower and fortitude are the most admired traits in martial arts. You don’t give up in the face of adversity. Mostly, this is a learned skill. The vast majority of people who start give up within the first three months. They get frustrated and they get bored because they’re not progressing fast enough. Physical activity is the beast where the conditioning part feels miserable until you reach a point where your body clicks, you plateau, it gets easy, and then you start all over again. There are no short cuts, you just have to do it.

It’s important to remember that the stunt actors you see in the movies have made martial arts and martial arts choreography their careers. The people you see who started as kids have all been doing this for anywhere between five to fourteen years depending on how old they are now. You don’t get to see how they looked when they started out, which most of them will admit was pretty terrible in comparison to what you’re currently seeing.

You’ve got to give yourself permission to suck. Give yourself permission to say, “yeah, I’m doing okay.” Realize everyone you train with has been where you are, at the beginning, at the bottom of the mountain and intimidated by the climb. It’s going to take awhile for your body to catch up to what your mind imagines, and you probably won’t be able to do a high kick day one. Or day two, or by day three. It takes time for your body to build up coordination, to develop your balance, and work on your flexibility.

Be honest with yourself about what you really want from the martial art experience. There’s nothing to stop you at twenty-five from eventually competing on the martial arts circuit if that’s what you want, but if you just want to practice recreationally or get skills for self-defense then try not to beat yourself up for not being Jet Li.

Focus on the progress you are making, rather than what you’re not doing right. Try to have fun. Find a good, supportive community, most martial arts schools aren’t what people imagine. They’re family affairs with people who start from all different ages and are from different walks of life. They’re communal, rather than competitive. They’ll push you to find the best version of yourself, if you’re willing to put in the time.

Learning not to be immediately discouraged by something your not immediately good at is difficult. It may take a few tries to find a martial art and a school which fit you. I can’t promise the experience won’t be frustrating at times and occasionally embarrassing because it is, you’re going to fall down even when you’re really good. You’ll get sweaty, and gross, and your face will be a red mess, you’ll get out of breath, you can pull muscles, even break bones. There will be days when you want to quit, want to give up. However, there’s no better feeling that conquering your own body. No better feeling than conquering your fear. The sensation you get where everything just clicks into place, and just works is great. The point where it stops being hard and starts really feeling good? The fantastic thud of landing a powerful kick on the training pads? Those are the moments you live for.

Martial arts is a fun, rewarding experience. Martial arts is for everyone willing to put in the effort. There is no cut off, only the hurdles you build in your own mind and your own perceptions. Ultimately, life is what we make it. Training in martial arts, what you’ll eventually learn is, most of the time, the only thing stopping you is you.

So, don’t let fear, frustration, or embarrassment stop you from getting what you want. The only way to know is to start, stick with it, and not give up if studying your martial art is what you want to be doing. Also, study a martial art you’re actually interested in because that’s half the initial battle.

-Michi

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Q&A: Looking for A Man to Die for All the Wrong Reasons

kradeiz said to howtofightwrite: I just read your ‘Emotions are not a Weakness’ post and found it very illuminating, especially its analysis of ATLA’s themes of enlightenment and martial arts. I was curious, at one point you say, “Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of ATLA is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.” Going off the themes the series was trying to convey, what might’ve been a more appropriate way for Aang to stop the Firelord?

By living up to the Airbender’s ideals and philosophies of pacifism, using that genuine optimism and hope for change to break the cycle of destruction. Remember, Aang is supposed to be the setting’s version of the Dalai Lama and Baguazhang is a martial art dedicated to introspection, peace, and seeking enlightenment through harmony between body and spirit.

Think of Luke Skywalker throwing aside his lightsaber at the end of Return of the Jedi, facing the Emperor and saying, “I’m not going to fight you.”

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Mastery in the martial arts is not the mastery of techniques, but mastery of the self. You reach a point where you can no longer just focus on the techniques themselves, but their use and their purpose in the world. You must consider yourself, who you become when you use them, and the affect they have on others. In the real world, you will eventually be forced to face the consequences of your own actions. Not just your suffering, but the pain you inflict on others both intended and unintended. Martial training gives you real power and control over your environment, and, in the face of grief and suffering, will ultimately teach you how powerless you really are.

Upfront, violence often seems like a great solution to your problems. However, you quickly learn its only good for short term solutions and causes more problems than it solves through unintended consequences. You can go to war for the right reasons, but war creates an endless cycle of more war. Pain and suffering, anger, fear, and hatred breed more in others, including the desire to inflict their own suffering back on you. In the small globe, this is how children who are abused grow up to become abusers. We put this thirst for vengeance, control, and power on the large scale by many people who have experienced the same thing, who want the same thing, and who go out to get it. “I need to make them hurt like I’ve been hurt.”

You can win battles, but not forever. You can win the war, but not forever. You have until the next generation grows up or your enemy rebuilds their forces, and then the cycle begins again.

The discussion of how you should behave when you have this power has birthed thousands of philosophies in both the East and the West dedicated to responsible use of force. This discussion is the central focus of many martial arts adventure narratives because our response to the journey, what we learn through our successes and failures is the crux of truly attaining wisdom.

One of the most common themes of the martial arts adventure is the great warrior becoming the great sage. Through the adversity he faces and the suffering he witnesses (and causes), the warrior comes to the realization that violence no matter one’s intention merely contributes to more violence and that the means of achieving lasting change comes from changing hearts.

“I cannot control who others choose to be, only myself.”

Aang as the Avatar with his mystical spiritual powers should have a means of reaching Ozai and give him the opportunity to change where no one else can. He could find the Fire Lord, together with Zuko and Iroh, and bring him to face with the harm he’s caused. The harm he’s spent his life insulated from. Aang never seeks to understand the human in the evil, what drove Ozai to murder his father, steal his brother’s birthright, drive away his wife, to abuse his children. Aang never sees himself in Ozai, sees in him the dark mirror of what he could become and what he has personally done which echoes the Fire Lord’s own behavior.

There are shades of Ozai in Aang because there are shades of Ozai in all of us. Who we are is not determined by what we are, nor by the place in society to which we are born, but in who we’ve chosen to be.

The Dalai Lama says, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Pacifism takes real strength because kindness and compassion are easy to pay lip service to, but difficult in practice. Not harming those who’ve hurt you, seeking to understand them even as you hold them accountable is difficult. To not say, “it’s okay for me, but not you” and instead say, “it’s not okay, period” is hard. Approaching the world openly and honestly, seeking to see clearly even in the face of disappointment, pain, and prejudice is difficult.

We see Aang pay lip service to the ideals, but when push comes to shove he abandons them in favor of lashing out at the world around him. An example is the Sand Benders after stealing his flying bison Appa, Aang loses his head and attacks them. He drives away the people who hurt him, first destroying their sand barges (their means of surviving in the desert) and then enters the Avatar State to punish them some more all at the cost of finding Appa more quickly. Lashing out in violence to punish someone for hurting you feels good, but ultimately the one who truly suffers for Aang’s choice is Appa himself.

(The realization of the consequences of his actions in this case is not a plot point in Avatar leading to self-reflection and eventual change, but an excuse to force the Gaang to travel on foot.)

One of the core problems of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that neither the narrative nor Aang ask what it means to be the Avatar, it never asks what being the Avatar means to Aang, never seeks to ask if Aang or the Avatar are truly necessary for the health of the world, and really doesn’t want to ask if Aang as the Avatar is necessary at all. It states that he is, but never wrestles with why.

Why is killing the Fire Lord wrong? If you’re answer is because killing is wrong, again, ask yourself why. Why is killing wrong? If you’re answer is… it just is, you need to think on it some more.

There’s a bigger question though at the heart of this question, which is, “what are you willing to die for?”

Delenn: If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another.

Sebastian: But your great cause!

Delenn: This is my cause–Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same!

Sebastian: Then you make the sacrifice willingly? No fame. No armies or banners or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone and unremarked and forgotten.

Delenn: This body is only a shell. You cannot touch me, you cannot harm me. I’m not afraid.

[after Delenn offers to sacrifice herself for Sheridan, who’s being tortured by Sebastian]

Sebastian: You can go. You’ve passed, both of you.

Delenn: Passed what?

Sebastian: How do you know the Chosen Ones? “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” Not for millions… not for glory… not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see. I have been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasons. At last, my job is finished. Yours is just beginning. When the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

-Babylon 5, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The great leader is not one who wins by strength of arms, but from their ability to inspire change in others. When the hero falls, a hundred will stand up where he or she fell to face the darkness in their place. To carry on their values into a new generation. The hero’s legacy will outlast them.

The Avatar shouldn’t be necessary for policing peace in the world because the world should be able to police itself by following their example. If the Avatar is necessary as a club to enforce good behavior from the surrounding countries and the countries aren’t really able to band together in order to defend their people after he disappears, then the system wasn’t sustainable to begin with.

If Aang cannot defeat, make peace with, face, or even acknowledge his own darkness, how can he help someone else defeat the darkness within themselves? How can he inspire someone to face theirs?

Telling someone what is right and expecting them to change because you said so doesn’t work, the only people who will listen are the ones who already agree with your perspective. Being sympathetic to their plight, showing them compassion when they don’t expect it, understanding the source of their struggle, and recognizing the pain lying behind bad behavior does work when it comes to changing hearts. Empathy works.

Naruto is a hilarious counterpoint to Aang. Naruto is a character who was rejected by his society not for who he was, but for what he carried inside him. He was written off as dangerous, neglected by the village, and he knew they hated him even if he didn’t know why (because everyone was forbidden to tell him.) He grew up alone, and lonely. His vandalism, class clowning, destructive acting out is brought up by the Third Hokage in the first episode as coming from his desire to have his existence acknowledged by someone… by anyone. Even if the attention is negative, it’s positive for him. Something is better than nothing. Naruto’s dream, which everyone derides, is to become Hokage himself so the whole village will have to acknowledge him. This is standard behavior for neglected children, including smiling to pretend you don’t care, things don’t hurt you, even when they do.

What makes Naruto different from so many other characters like him is that his ability to connect with others and change them with the power of friendship is rooted in his own suffering, his experience of being rejected by those around him. His sympathy and empathy for those who share his plight, his attempt to communicate his feelings to them even in battle, all tie in with his growing understanding of the Hokage’s responsibilities. He doesn’t lose his optimism, doesn’t lose himself to hatred even though he’s hated. It would be easy for him to hate, but he chooses not to. He tries to understand his enemies instead, winning them over with genuine kindness, how hard he tries, and how he tells them not to give them up. “Look at what you still have,” Naruto says, “not at what you’ve lost.”

I’d rather have Naruto around than Aang, because Naruto is the obnoxious loudmouthed friend who headbutts you when you’re getting down on yourself. The one who sticks with you through thick and thin, and stays without judgement even when you’re the ugliest version of yourself. The one who hops down into the dark hole with you, the one who says, “I’ve been down here before. Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”

Aang is not this character, he tries to be but he’s too selfish and thin skinned. Aang is the character who gives you a sanctimonious speech after pretending to commiserate. He’s not willing to face the idea of being a bad person, or being perceived as a bad person. He’s hurt by rejection if the other person doesn’t immediately change after he tries. He’s not willing to empathize, even though he shares parts of Naruto’s backstory. He’s lost everything, but he wields his loss as an emotional crutch. We should feel bad for him, for the weight of his responsibilities, and how he doesn’t get to have what he wants. Aang is afraid of losing more, and that fear brings out the worst version of himself more often than not. He wouldn’t be the Avatar if someone wasn’t dragging him into being the Avatar. He ran away from being the Avatar, after all. He can’t reach people lost in their own darkness, and when he tries its usually because he has a genuine interest in them for a specific reason.

Avatar’s narrative says some people can be helped but they’re exceptions, some people can change but they’re exceptions and they would have anyway because they were actually good to begin with. Monsters, though, can’t be helped, can’t be reached, can’t change. Avatar’s narrative will tell you to abandon the people who bought into their society’s values, that they have to save themselves in isolation. Avatar will tell you there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve what happens to them.

And… that’s not quite living up to the philosophy the narrative insists it espouses.

-Michi

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